Villing & Company

Cultural Awareness in Marketing

“Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

I heard a wonderful piece on NPR driving to work yesterday morning. Entitled “How an African-American Ad Man Changed the Face of Advertising,” the story was based on the career of Tom Burrell, the first black man in Chicago advertising. While Burrell’s quote above may seem obvious from a contemporary point of view, it still speaks volumes about the challenges facing marketers even today.

As much as we may like to believe our marketing messages are universal, all of us involved in developing creative content are products of our culture and environment. To be sure, most national and international brands use supplementary agencies with diverse specialties including African-American, Hispanic, Asian and other minority market segments. But what about local, regional or niche marketers who may not have the resources to hire cultural specialists? For many, this could be a real challenge and there are no easy answers. And I am not simply referring to cultural awareness based on ethnicity. The same challenges would apply to cultural sensitivities regarding gender, sexual orientation and other demographic considerations - including age.

I am not typically a proponent of researching creative messaging because it can often be counter-productive to achieving break-through impact. However, when a specific target audience needs to be addressed, it behooves us all to do whatever is necessary to make sure our messages and delivery are culturally appropriate. Highly sophisticated, large sample quantitative research may not be essential, but at the very least, one would be advised to test messages with qualitative research methodologies such as focus groups or multiple one-on-one interviews with members of the target audience.

As I said, there are no simple solutions. But when it comes to avoiding problems of perceived cultural insensitivity, it’s probably best to heed the old adage about being safe rather than sorry.

Filed Under: advertising

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